Reading the dust patterns on your saddle pad is the equestrian version of reading tea leaves. You study the marks that are left after riding and they help you evaluate the pressure points under your saddle and if it’s a good fit for your horse. Of course, it can also tell you that your horse is dirty!
In general, wherever you see dirt, there is contact. Where there’s no dirt? No contact. Analyzing the dirt patterns can help you see if you are crooked in the saddle (more dirt on one side than the other), whether the saddle bridges (no dirt where you would expect to see contact)
According to master saddler Jochen Schleese:
The dirt should accumulate in the areas of the saddle pad that experience the most movement: at the front of the saddle (where the shoulder moves up and back) and at the back (where horse’s back swings). No dirt should show in the areas where the saddle doesn’t come in contact with the horse’s back, such as the gullet or at the transition between sweat flap and panel.
Just remember to start with a clean, white pad and a clean horse. If your horse isn’t pretty clean, excessive dirty on parts of its back can skew the results. Also, if your pad slips at all during your ride, it will impact the patterns.
Finally, your horse gets the final say in fit. I had a saddle a few years ago that created dirt patterns that, to me, indicated saddle fit problems. My horse apparently hadn’t read the manual because he loved that saddle. So sometimes the tea leaves don’t tell the whole story.
Today was the first day when it really felt like winter. 23 degrees in the sun, the wind chill made it feel like 6. The water pump is frozen. The ground is frozen. My fingers were frozen. It’s very hard to believe that yesterday we were hunting in 46 degree sunshine and felt pretty good once we got moving.
I bundled the horses up in their blankets, broke the ice in the water tank, and gave them extra hay. They didn’t seem to mind the cold as much as I did (and my dog was begging to get back in the car), but the gusty wind made them skittish.
I’m sorry to say that I’m ready for winter to be over. And it hasn’t even started!
Most of the time when you ask someone how much they feed their horse, they answer in terms of quarts — or coffee cans. It’s an easy way to measure when scooping it out of a bin, but unless you take feed density into account, it’s a highly variable strategy. You will always end up using a volume measurement (it’s easy) but you also need to understand what that volume contains. After all the reason for feeding grain is to 1) ensure your horse’s nutritional requirements are covered and 2) add additional calories if forage isn’t enough.
Years ago I had a thoroughbred mare who always looked a bit too thin to my eye. Finally I brought in a nutritionist to evaluate my regime and explained that I was feeding her six quarts/day of Vintage Victory. What, I asked, should I add to her diet to keep her round and shiny.
I give the guy credit for not rolling his eyes. “Feed her more of it,” was his answer. He went on to explain that while this was a good feed, it was low density. A coffee can/quart weighted less than a pound (0.95). A pound of it contained 1550 calories. In comparison, the Purina Strategy I fed my other horse, weighted 1.25 lbs per quart. and although it contained a similar number of calories per pound, I was feeding my mare fewer calories by serving up the same volume. I thought I was feeding my horse plenty of food but in fact, I was short changing her.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend about her horse, who looked a bit skinny. Now, he was skinny when she bought him, but going into a New England winter, he still looked like he needed groceries. She told me the barn was feeding him six quarts/day of Sentinel LS. Now, this is a very good feed but has the same issue as the Vintage Victory. A quart of it weighs only .85 lbs and contains 1635 calories. That means that six quarts of feed is 5.1 lbs and 8, 338.5 calories.
In comparison, she had been feeding her other horse six quarts/day of Purina Ultium. A quart of Ultium weighs 1.3 lbs and contains 1900 calories. Six quarts is 7.8 pounds and contains 14,820 calories. Quite a difference!
While she thought the first horse was getting plenty of feed, there’s actually a difference of almost 6,500 calories/day from what she’s feeding the second horse.
For many horses, six quarts of Sentinel LS or Vintage Victory would be enough — the 5.1 lbs is at the low range of the recommended feeding level for nutritional content, so if a horse can hold its weight on that amount, it’s fine. Zelda, for example, is an air fern. She gets 2 quarts/day of Triple Crown Lite (1.42 lbs/quart and 1,150 calories/pound) and 1 quart of Enrich 32 (1.25 lbs/quart and 1,500 calories/lb). That’s a grand total of 5,410 calories in grain but since she doesn’t need the calories, it’s an efficient way to meet her nutritional needs (she gets free choice grass hay).
Thoroughbreds often need more calories to keep their ribs covered but at the same time, you don’t want to fill them with rocket fuel. Freedom currently gets 6 quarts/day of Triple Crown Senior (1.08 lbs/quart and 1,546 calories/pound) for 10, 018 calories of grain. In addition to that he gets 2 quarts of Alfalfa pellets (1,940 calories) and 1.5 cups of cocosoya oil (2,910 calories). So before he starts eating his free choice hay, he’s getting 14,868. While that’s almost exactly the same number of calories as feeding 6 quarts of Ultium, he does better with a lower starch feed.
You can read about the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content of feeds and see more comparisons of feed density and calories in this post: Calories, densities and NSC content: understanding different feeds.
Most of the time you can find the weight of a feed per quart and the calories per pound on line. If they are not posted, you can weigh a baggie containing a quart of feed on a food or postal scale, or email the feed company. Remember that not all horses need the same number of calories and that not all calories are created equal. Some horses do not do well on feeds that are high in starch/sugar and some horses do better on more densely caloric feeds (they don’t eat large volumes or they need a lot of calories/day).
Freedom is a thin-skinned horse who is very sensitive to touch. Basically, he’d prefer you didn’t touch him at all some days. He will tolerate grooming, but just can’t tolerate the stimulation of a bare hand — it’s too much energy transfer for him. He benefits greatly from massage, but of course that generally means that you have to touch him.
He does better when I supplement with magnesium (more on that later) but I also came across a video where Jim Masterson (the Masterson Method) speaks specifically about horses like this. His advice is to step way back from the horse and use your hand to direct your horse’s attention to different spots on his body. It’s a bit like Reiki — a form of energy healing.
Here are two videos that I’ve found helpful. One shows hands on techniques for getting your horse to accept treatment; one includes suggestions for horses like Freedom who sometimes need to be treated without physical touch.
For many years I’ve taken a minimalist approach to protective boots. In other words, I haven’t been using them.
Partially, it’s my discipline. Boots can be a problem when foxhunting because the horses wear them for a long time and they trap water and dirt (which makes them rub) and a lot of heat can build up in boots that aren’t breathable. Boots are not as common in hunting as they are in eventing — just a small percentage of the people I hunt with boot their horses.
I’ve never subscribed to the notion that boots can offer any real support. At best they restrict the movement of the fetlock; at worst boots that are too tight can cause problems.
Then Freedom damaged his check ligament. The vet thought the most likely scenario was that he caught it with a hind hoof while galloping in his pasture. That got me thinking. Out in the hunt field, galloping over uneven terrain there was a greater chance that he could hit himself again, knock himself on a jump or get injured going through brush. I want to protect his legs as the greatest risk to sport horses is reported to be to the lower forelegs. I wanted a boot that was breathable, lightweight and would protect against concussion.
So I went back to looking at boots. The first boots I bought were ThinLine boots. I like the ThinLine pads a lot but the boots made Freedom’s legs quite hot. So I went back to the drawing board.
I’d read about a new boot by Majyk Equipe — the Boyd Martin XC boots — so I bought a pair. They are breathable and lightweight and they feature a padded interior lining that conforms well to a horse’s legs, reducing the chance of rubbing. I’ve used them out hunting several times now and they stay in place, they don’t absorb water and his legs are pretty cool (for one hunt I used the Thinline boots behind and the Majyk Equipe boots in front. The difference in the heat retention was significant).
The Majyk Equipe boots were impact tested (measuring the amount of blunt trauma force able to pass through different models of xc boot) by Biokinetics (Canada), a third-party testing company, and showed impressive results when compared to several other popular brands — you can read the report here.
And finally, the boots are reasonably priced. I paid $80 for the front boots and have ordered fetlock boots for his hind legs. I’ve noticed that now that he’s wearing shoes behind he catches himself occasionally.
So far I’m using the boots only when out hunting. What about you? Do you use boots on your horse? What’s your favorite brand and why?
Laminitis can be sudden — brought on by a fever or an overload of carbohydrated — or it can be gradual. So, what should you look for? Keep in mind that no one symptom indicates laminitis and in some cases, a horse might not exhibit a common system, such as heat in the hoof, and still have it.
Foot soreness — while this can also be an abscess or bruising, if your horse becomes tender-footed, make sure to check his digital pulse and determine if there’s any heat in the hoof and ask your vet to apply hoof testers. An abscess typically
Reluctance to move – if your horse appears to be very stiff and is reluctant to move, check his feet.
Hind feet tucked underneath its body – laminitis more typically presents in the front feet so if your horse is standing with his hind feet further under his body than usual, it may be a sign that the front feet are sore.
Lethargy or reluctance to eat - if your horse typically has a good appetite and turns up its nose at grain, lack of appetite can be a symptom of laminitis.
Atypical weight bearing – a horse that has a limb injury can cause a horse to put too much weight on the opposite limb, triggering an episode of laminitis.
The best defense is to know your horse and take all deviations in “normal” behavior seriously.
One of the only things I don’t like about being in a co-op barn is that when a horse looks not-quite-right, it’s up to the person feeding that day to
b) know what to do, and
c) decide whether you have identified a problem or are just being alarmist.
No one thanks you if you call the vet unnecessarily; no one is happy if you don’t call the vet and there’s a problem.
On Tuesday, it was my turn.
Luckily, it was a morning where I’d chosen not to hunt. I’ve been feeling behind for days, if not weeks, and I thought a nice quiet day would do me good.
So, I wasn’t in a hurry when I fed. Which was just as well because Fortune just didn’t look right. She’s been on stall/paddock rest for the past two and a half months recovering from a fractured sesamoid and a torn suspensory ligament. But she’s been a good patient and has been looking pretty content.
That was not the horse that greeted me. She was lethargic, not interested in her breakfast, her hind legs were quite stocked up and she was reluctant to move (normally she walks cheerfully into her paddock for her grain). What bothered me the most was how she was standing. Her hind legs were too far under her body and too close together. And she was shifting the weight on her front feet.
I watched her for a few long minutes. One of the advantages of taking care of the horses is that you get to know them pretty well so that differences in their attitudes or posture stand out. I know my own horse very, very well but it’s harder with another person’s horse. I tried to encourage her to walk. She looked stiff and uncomfortable but she wasn’t running a fever and there was fresh manure in her stall. I didn’t want to unnecessarily panic her owner so I called the vet. One of the things I really, really appreciate about the practice that we use is that they are happy to talk to you on the phone. She listened to my observations, and agreed that a farm call was probably in order. So I called Fortune’s owner who scheduled the visit.
I had just gotten back from my ride when the vet (a different one from the one I’d spoken to earlier) showed up. I explained what I’d seen and showed her some photos I’d taken of her hind legs which showed the swelling. I still felt a bit sheepish about having the vet come out but hoped it wasn’t something serious. When I left, they’d ruled out colic and the vet was pulling out her hoof testers.
An hour and a half later I was back at the barn . . . and the vet was still there. Not good. It was the early stages of laminitis and they were already icing her feet. Her discomfort had been real but instead of hind legs, it was her front feet.
Fortune was moved to the vet’s clinic for the next few days so they could manage her care. Luckily, the films show only a tiny (2 degree) rotation of the coffin bone. The vet thinks the laminitis was brought on by a combination of rich second cut hay and inactivity, but it’s hard to know.
I am glad I was paying attention and glad that I suggested a vet visit. Delaying would have only caused the situation to become worse.
Generally, for my own horse I call my vet if something seems wrong just to give them a heads up and find out when they plan to be in the area. I only get a vet out immediately for a wound, a serious colic (I’d call and give Banamine first), or an incident like choke. Often if a horse looks slightly off or has a puffy leg, I’ll cold hose, ice and wrap it first to see how it responds (when Freedom injured his check ligament I knew right away that it wasn’t just a sprain. It looked serious). But it’s so much easier to make those decisions with your own horse. I’ve had other barn members want to wait before calling a vet — in fact, several years ago a pony at our barn was showing classic signs of laminitis but I couldn’t convince the owner to call in a vet. The pony foundered quite severely and while she recovered, it was touch and go for awhile.
When do you call the vet about someone else’s horse? I have to say that it was one of the days when I really would have liked to turn the whole thing over to a barn manager!